Making an old house in the city live again

Rehabbing an inner-city house calls for dedication, imagination, patience, and a whole lot of persistence to see the project through. It's helpful, too, if one is flexible and unflappable, because no matter how well one plans ahead, surprises are inevitable.

Thus, it really helps if one can take events in stride.

My mother and I have spent the past six months extensively remodeling a six-story townhouse built in 1852. We have learned a lot, are happy with the results, but have no plans to repeat the exercise any time soon.

The project was not just a whim or fancy. We did a great deal of thinking beforehand and special research each step of the way. We weighed, for example, the pros and cons of moving, considering carefully our needs, tastes, and resources.

Why abandon suburban spaces for the inner city?

* First, we wanted to avoid the time, strain, and energy problems of commuting.

* Second, we found it desirable to be close to work, within easy public access to the airport, and within walking distance of church, stores, restaurants, museums, and theaters.

* Third, but not the least important, we wanted to get the most return for our money.

For the same investment an inner-city home offers greater appreciation potential and could provide rental space and income, which may not be available in a similarly priced suburban house.

Once we had settled on an area that seemed suitable for our requirements, we talked with friends who lived there and got in touch with brokers. We also checked real-estate ads in a local paper to find out what prices were like and what types of houses were on the market.

We read up on the area and walked around to get the feel of the community.

Further, we spoke with people who were working or had worked on houses here. They told us what to look our for when buying a house and described some of the problems they had had in restoring their own houses. We were always on the alert for the names of lawyers, building contractors, and craftsmen.

After speaking to several local real-estate brokers, we settled on one who had lived in the area for a number of year. It was obvious that he really loved it. Also, he took the time to answer our many questions and often went out of his way to help.

We talked about remodeling costs, taxes, mortgages, insurance, and utility rates for the area. In general, this was a vain hope because the actual costs were double all our estimates.

Several options were open to us. We could get a shell (little more than four walls), a partially rehabbed building, or a house that already had been completely redone.Each of the options was about double the previous in cost.If we wanted an occupied dwelling, there was the choice of a single-family house, an apartment building, or a rooming house.

After careful consideration, we opted for a partially rehabbed house which had been modernized a decade ago and had been turned into three apartments. It had the advantage of being habitable and culd provide a source of income while the work was in progress.

The building was located on an attractive street with a warm neighborhood feeling and lots of trees. A relatively large space was available in the rear for off-street parking, a yard for our pet, and even a small garden.

Before bidding on the house, we examined it carefully, had it inspected for structural and other defects, took room measurements, and made lists of changes we wanted to make.

We also made sketches of potential floor plans and discussed where furnishings and other items from our two households would go.

While making the lists we discovered different types of work that needed to be done.

* Safety repairs: rebuilding the chimney, stairs, and fire balconies.

* Upgrading the appearance: cosmetic treatment of the walls in the stairwells and halls, replacing the dilapidated front doors, new carpeting, and the like.

* Energy-saving changes: insulation, weatherstripping, and the addition of storm windows.

* Modernization of the building: replacing the kitchen cabinets, adding fire alarms and smoke detectors, and so on.

* New construction: converting a dark basement into a spacious office-apartment off the patio garden.

Looking at the house-to-be required a lot of imagination. The entrance and stairs had not been redone in the last modernizing. And remember, the house was almost 130 years old. In short, the house was dingy. Plaster was broken, the stairs were rickety, the railings broken, the floors barren. They literally cried out for help.

Elsewhere, painting was needed inside and out. Oak floors, black with dirt, needed sanding. Lighting fixtures had to be replaced for both utility and appearance. Several interior doors had been dented or bashed in, window panes were cracked here and there, and any caulking around the windows had deteriorated.

The eaves needed repair and the gutters looked like French lace. The fire balconies, rusted through, had apparently not been checked since they were installed 40 years ago.

Because of the soaring cost of heating oil and its questionable availability, we converted to natural gas.

How did two women go ahead to handle these problems?

Unlike many young couples doing all the work themselves over several years -- common in this area -- we contracted for workmen located through the help of friends. It became obvious, however, that, in addition to designing and decorating, we knew how to do, or could learn how to do, many of the chores on our lists.

STaining and sealing the previously unfinished woodwork, tiling the ceramic countertops and bathrooms walls, laying vinyl floor tiles, installing extra shelves in closets, ripping out the kitchen floors and cabinets, wallpapering, and, of course, painting. By doing such projects ourselves in the evening and on weekends, we not only speeded up the work, but we cut the cost considerably.

Building, in general, usually costs more than estimated because of one's tendency to make changes as the job goes ahead. And then there's inflation which had doubled and tripled many costs. Wood flooring trebled in a few weeks, according to one builder friend. Our carpenter generally bought ahead to beat transportation costs which increased the price of lumber.

Future remodelers should watch carefully for sales on items, such as kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Some advertised lumber, however, is unseasoned, so beware of bargains unless you really know what you're buying.

Asking questions about the best sources of supplies, doing comparative shopping, and taking advantage of discounts and sales helped us financially, as did the use of credit. We kept our money earning interest by charging materials. Then we paid in full after the bills filtered down through the credit system. Every little bit helped.

A final note: Keep records with utmost care.

Because we were reinvesting money from one house into another, because the new house was partially rental property and expenses had to be separated from "our" part, and because some costs were for necessary repairs to the rental units, we segregated our accounts and itemized all costs. Each bill is carefully stored away.

How about frustrations? There were some, of course. The most common frustration, we found, was keeping the workers on a job until it was finished. Days of frantic activity were followed by other days when no one showed up at all because they had gone to do something on another job.

Beyond that, it always took a while for a new contractor to take my mother seriously. Although she had had some experience in remodeling a house and knew what she wanted done, they did not always trust her ideas.

Occasionally something could not be done. We would find out why and then come up with a new idea. Other times we just had to be firm and say "do it." On the whole, however, we are very happy with our move into the city as well as with our new home. We have a nice house on an attractive, shady street. Although only 20 by 40 feet in size on a 20-by-80-foot lot, the house is spacious and private.

People and noise seem oddly remote.

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